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Are You Erecting Love-Barriers?

You may be defending against intimacy by being too picky and playing "blemish."

Carl had been dating Elizabeth for five months and knew he liked her a lot. She was classy, had a good sense of humor, was intelligent, attractive, and personable. He had had trouble maintaining relationships in the past because he would find some imperfection his partner possessed and not be able to overcome it.

True to form, as he was getting more involved, he found himself reacting more negatively to Elizabeth's small breasts. Though she was a good lover, he lost interest in sex, because the sight of her breasts disturbed him.

He had maintained that he had grown up associating sexual excitement with the nude centerfolds he would use for arousal. These women, through the miracle of good genes, surgery, or touch-up photography, customarily possessed ideal breasts. Carl irrationally feared other men would think less of him because he was with Elizabeth. Being insecure about his masculinity, he thought he preferred a "normally endowed woman."

He did not say anything to Elizabeth about his problems; instead, he hinted he was stimulated by women who had breast augmentations and suggested she would look great with one. She was quite content with her body and never considered adding to it. Unable to deal directly with the issue, Carl became more sullen. Elizabeth did not understand his sullenness but realized something was not working. She suggested he talk to an objective professional.

Realizing he was unable to feel intimate for long, he did so. He slowly developed insight into his defense mechanism. He was able to switch his focus to center on Elizabeth's many outstanding features. He consciously changed what he regarded as important and acquired an appreciation for her positive attributes.

It is burdensome to decide what is going on when resentment toward your partner starts to build. The warmth subsides like a fire buried under an avalanche of dirt, and questioning begins. "Is it me?" "Is it him?" "Is it something that's just happening?"

There are no absolutes, but your defensiveness can lead to your gradually withdrawing. Alternately, it can be your mate who is doing something inappropriately, a deal-breaker, which leads to alienation. Most often, both scenarios are in place.

Don't we all hope when a relationship begins that this one will be different? There may be little reason to anticipate turmoil, and partners may even wonder about what they will ever fight over. However, most reach the point where the feeling of "it just isn't working" can invade and characterize their relationship for a long period of time.

It's true that often trials and suffering can even strengthen the bond as the couple is forced to learn from the past and use new, adaptive behaviors. But if a couple overreacts to conflict and a bumpy road, then a temporary state can be viewed not as a minor nuisance, but as a deadly growth.

Some perceive any kind of shortcoming as meaning that the relationship is over; if there is any turmoil, then they must not be right for each other. In their pretend world, there is no conflict. Realistically, there are thousands of ways that people can become incompatible with one another, and no two can expect total agreement. In fact, I believe most would find someone who matched them as being pretty boring and threatening. Isn't it said that opposites attract?

Though it does not make much sense, most of us defend against the very love we want. We erect love barriers. Even spiritually, many often fight receiving love. Those who believe they can receive the present of grace often just play with the gift box and disregard the actual present.

Most of us spend significant time and money trying to establish a lasting relationship, but when we are actually in one, we may develop defenses that can strain and even end the relationship. Most people see their reactions as justified and conceive themselves as being the good guy who wears the white hat, who occasionally may be misunderstood and unappreciated.

Still, to an objective observer, the defenses are clearly evident; in fact, they are common. Most of these defenses are intimacy-avoiding maneuvers, which are used to escape from serious relationships. Nearly everybody relies on defenses at some time, but the degree and consistency with which they are used can influence how comfortably and appropriately you function.

It can be difficult to be objective and unbiased about your own tendency to pull back from someone. When are you defensive, and when are you just reacting normally to the other person's provocations? Jan entered therapy when she was upset with Mark, whom she had been dating for six months.

The precipitating event took place when they ate at a nice restaurant, and Mark did not leave a tip. She was adamant that he do so, but he didn't. She then accused him of being cheap and questioned his generosity.

Their relationship began to deteriorate, and she wondered whether she was overreacting, being judgmental and self-righteous, or whether she was justified in objecting to this. She did not know whether to trust her own feelings and realize there was something wrong, or whether she was being defensive in an effort to resist intimacy. She concluded that she was being oversensitive about this issue, and began to become aware that she felt vulnerable and was acting too critical.

She accepted that if it were so important, she could have left a tip herself; she concluded that she was overgeneralizing from one incident. The issue wasn't really the tip, but her fear of loving and her fear of its removal.

A common defense people use is to put too much importance on some fallibility they discover in a mate. Those who do this focus on some blemish or idiosyncrasy, become repulsed, and withdraw. It may be a physical blemish, a mannerism like the way they chew their food, their personal hygiene, the way they maintain their apartment, their political views, religious leanings, body type, car, home, job, etc.—almost anything can be scorned.

A physical, mental, or spiritual shortcoming can become more important than it need be. The picker loses sight of their partner's essence. They feel that they cannot be happy with a person who snores, or who has poor taste in clothes. Indeed, some people use the other person's actual skin blemishes as an excuse to avoid them. The end result is to withdraw.

Certainly, it can be difficult to determine whether you are being picky, or you hold certain ingrained values. For instance, some people are very physically attracted to their partner's body. Over time, they may find that their partner begins gaining or losing weight drastically, and his or her body image changes.

If their partner has gained weight, some decide that it does not matter, because there is more to love. Others are upset by the change and constantly harp at their mate, reminding them that they aren't what they used to be. Such griping usually creates resentment, guilt, and frustration. This pattern can also occur when one relapses into their destructive addiction.

To know whether what you are doing is defending against obtaining intimacy, it is important to address the traits you find in strangers, which would preempt you from ever developing a relationship with them. Look at what you actually find unacceptable: deal-breakers, things which would end the relationship. Would you refuse to begin a serious relationship with someone who is irreligious? How do you feel about someone who smokes? How about someone who drinks or watches a lot of television? What kinds of music does your partner have to listen to? What about people who are handicapped, blind, deaf, or can use only some of their limbs? If your mate loses function of a sense or appendage, does this mean the relationship is over?

If you can imagine becoming involved with someone who has certain undesirable traits, but you are upset if your partner possesses the same traits, then you are over-focusing on shortcomings. If you know that there are certain behaviors that you just cannot stand, and your partner has begun to evidence them, it may be difficult for you to overcome your feelings. These are the deal-breakers.

When you are at the "in love" stage, what bothers you about your partner? Not much, right? Do you care where they squeeze the toothpaste? If later their molehills become mountains, you are defending against intimacy. If you would overlook this with a person you feel you're falling in love with, then you need to take a hard look at what's really going on.

The more insecure you are, the more you can see your partner's behavior as being a reflection on you. If they do something which you feel is unacceptable, you may fear that this may also affect other people's opinions of you. You may then be more critical of your partner.

People should talk about their preferences before they become serious with another; however, many do not understand themselves well enough.

A good way to determine whether an imperfection you are bothered by is worth exiting the relationship is simply to give it some time. It is hard but necessary to be patient. Some people may be absolutely appalled by a characteristic that their partner evidences. Be it that a person is drunk at a party, flirting, or rude and obnoxious, you need to accept that people can be in bad moods, are fallible, and can react in different ways when they are under stress.

Your partner's doing a certain activity may be disruptive, but several days later, this may not even matter. Flare-ups can occur simply because people can be in the wrong mood at the wrong time. If you are able to write down things your mate is doing which bother you, put it in an envelope, and open it in several months, it would be interesting to see what still remains a complaint.

Do this and determine what actually weathers the test of time. We can all remember that all of us are far from perfect. Don't we all need others to extend forgiveness and grace to us?

Many forget that they have an option and can be appropriately assertive if their partner is doing annoying things. We can learn how to use our words to fight fair. Some just become angry if she stops cleaning the bathtub, or he starts wearing tattered clothes and not shaving during the weekend, but such problems are amenable to communication. Some never request the behaviors they want.

Focusing on blemishes is difficult to overcome if you do not perceive yourself as picky. Who is the worst sinner? How humble can you be?

When you meet someone whom you consider to be the right person, over-idealization is commonplace. Those who have a hard time accepting their own mistakes are often critical of others. In an attempt to protect themselves, they may be unaware that they are rejecting others before they can be rejected. Consequently, if they have not had much experience tolerating their errors, they may not be able to forgive their respective partners' failings either.

More from Gerry Heisler Ph.D.
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